President's ratings a reflection of US divide

Partisan ways of Washington still rife as poll reveals Obama could be the most polarising leader in the country's history.

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WASHINGTON // Three months into a presidency that many believed would spawn a new era of bipartisan unity, Barack Obama's America is still deeply divided along partisan lines. Eighty-eight per cent of Democrats approve of Mr Obama compared with 27 per cent of Republicans, according to a survey conducted this month by the Pew Research Center. The 61-point partisan gap is the widest ever measured for a president at this point in his first term, putting Mr Obama on course to be the most polarising president in the past four decades.

A Gallup poll this month found a similarly large partisan gap in Mr Obama's approval rating. That poll showed the gulf widening considerably since January when Mr Obama took office and many were labelling him the first "post-partisan" president. In his victory speech, Mr Obama implored the US public to "resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long". And such rhetoric clearly had an affect on US residents - close to half were optimistic that Democrats and Republicans would work together, a separate Pew poll found. Since then, however, that number has shrunk to just one-quarter.

"There is no doubt that there was a moment between the election and his inauguration when people were much more optimistic that there would be a change in the way politics would be done," said Michael Dimock, associate director for research at Pew. "Now three months into his presidency that optimism is largely gone." Some have blamed Mr Obama's ambitious agenda, which has included a series of bold economic proposals to rescue the country's faltering economy, including a stimulus bill of US$787 billion (Dh2.9 trillion) and a $3.4 trillion budget blueprint that will substantially increase the deficit.

Others say the partisanship is the continuation of a trend dating to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's conservative agenda started an era of hyper-partisanship that grew progressively worse under Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Certainly the presence of the 24-hour news cycle and political talk shows have stoked partisanship, others still say. But Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to Mr Bush and a man known in his own right for partisan politicking, has heaped blame squarely on the new president.

"Mr Obama has hastened the decline of Republican support with petty attacks on his critics and predecessor," he wrote in an opinion column last week in The Wall Street Journal. They have also diminished Mr Obama by showing him to be another conventional politician." Mr Obama has made some efforts to reach across the aisle, though his overtures have not translated into bipartisan legislative support. He has two Republicans in his cabinet and a third Republican, Judd Gregg, a senator from New Hampshire, was nominated to be commerce secretary before he withdrew citing "irresolvable conflicts" with the administration.

In March, several Republicans were invited to break bread with the president at a White House dinner. "We thought it was important for us to be able to step back for a moment, remind ourselves that we have things in common - family, friends, laughter," Mr Obama said at the time. Still, such exchanges of pleasantries are not enough to change the partisan ways of Washington and nobody knows that better than Mr Obama. His stimulus package received just three Republican votes in the Senate and no Republican votes in the House; his budget proposal passed without a single Republican vote.

Some say Mr Obama is being a pragmatist, choosing to pass sweeping legislation in line with the Democratic agenda rather than curtailing his plans for the sake of winning a few Republican votes. In fact, with his wide margin of victory in November and his party in control of the House and Senate, Mr Obama too has found partisanship tactically useful. When Republicans vehemently opposed his stimulus bill, Mr Obama effectively framed their opposition as obstructionist, rather than based on any principled argument. He is also considering using an expedited process known as "budget reconciliation", which would allow him to pass his budget, and possibly healthcare reform, with a simple majority.

"Partisanship is not bad," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who researches partisan polarisation in Congress. "People have serious disagreements over political fundamentals, goals, principles and so forth, and there is no easy way to meet in the fuzzy centre." Prof Jacobson also said the significance of the partisan gap in Mr Obama's approval ratings has been overstated. He pointed to Mr Clinton's two terms, when the median partisan gap measured by Gallup was 55 percentage points. For Mr Bush, who promised to be a "uniter", the gap at times approached 80 percentage points. "It's much too early to make a big deal about this," Prof Jacobson said of Mr Obama's ratings.

During Mr Reagan's presidency, the median partisan gap was 53 points. For the seven prior presidents, however, the median partisan gap was just 35 points. Many believe the trend has been magnified in recent decades by the disappearance of such crossover political groups as conservative southern Democrats or liberal north-eastern Republicans. Jay Cost, the conservative author of the HorseRaceBlog on RealClearPolitics.com, said Mr Obama has not done his part to offset them such trends.

Mr Cost said Mr Obama routinely mischaracterises Republican positions so he can more easily assail them. Mr Cost took issue with the top-ranking members of Mr Obama's cabinet - including Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff - when they tried to paint Rush Limbaugh, the controversial conservative talk show host, as the "voice" of the Republican Party. "It's an effort to delegitimise the opposition," Mr Cost said.

Bipartisan or not, Mr Obama enjoys strong approval ratings overall, averaging 61 per cent nationally, according to RealClearPolitics.com, which considered data from a variety of pollsters. "If he holds the Democrats and independents like he is doing now, he doesn't have to worry about Republicans," Prof Jacobson said. sstanek@thenational.ae